Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Dear Apple. Please stop pretending you're the answer to all of our problems.

This post was prompted by a brief discussion with a teacher acquaintance of mine who has 300-odd iPads at their school, which they have to manage because their IT staff are too busy, and by my observations of the past year or so of iPads and IOS around here, and a lot of time "thinking" about BYOD/1:1. 

You know what irritates sysadmins more than almost anything else?


What's almost even more annoying?

UsersWhen people with the power to force purchasing decisions (but who lack "tech clue") buy into it. This is a common problem throughout the IT world.

But this post is going to focus on the first of those inter-related problems, because it's one that's quite easy to fix in this example. If you're Apple.

I'm sure you've seen it. Teachers or senior managers who come back from a conference or workshop spouting the wonders of the latest "fondleslab" from "some fruit company", and how we need them, right now, based on some glitzy 20 minute sales pitch, or even worse, what they saw at an overseas conference. Either one of which is based almost entirely on completely different schooling scenarios in a completely different country and technological milieu. Or "My friend says they're really easy! We must get some!" Where does your friend live? "In <country where Apple supports their MDM* product>".  Or the ever-popular "keeping up with the Jones-es" comparison with another school "who has them, so we need to as well". *facepalm*.

I don't know if it's a "sysadmin thing", but I certainly take a lot of time doing research into what's available for particular tasks before going out and buying/implementing "a solution". Perhaps it's expecting too much of "capitalism", but vendors really need to stop giving EdTech a bad name by foisting vapourware on schools. Much educational software is also horrid. Not all schools have full time sysadmins, and not all schools listen to their sysadmins. You want your product to sell like particularly excellent hotcakes? Make it actually good! Listen to your customers when they send you a list (with reproducible bugs or horrid workflows) of all the ways your product is broken or could be improved (like, you know, automating deployments and updates - if you ship Windows software, ship an MSI. If you don't, you're making homeschooling software. If you don't want to do that and want to make a cross-platform product, embrace "the cloud". Put your cloud within 30-50ms of your customers. Make it work in anydamnbrowser and use responsive design; resist "appification" if it's only supported on one platform). Do not demonstrate features not available in that market. Such research leads me to conclusions like "iPads are probably a bad idea" and "if your cloud isn't in my country, I want no part of any product using it".

Key take home message: All Apple "educational" products are basically vapourware (or at best, a major pain to administer and use in the classroom) in Education until such time as their MDM solutions, and any applicable educational software products, are released in the country you happen to live in.

For us here at the bottom end of Africa, that is not the case.

Yes Apple, you are, in the broad interpretation of the word, selling Vapourware here. You can fix this very easily (give us MDM; put some cloud/CDN here), but at the moment, well, caveat emptor.

So, my suggestion is that - as of the time of writing this - selling Apple products in South Africa "for education" is disingenuous at best - disastrous at worst. After fiascoes like the LA Country iPad roll-out, you would think Apple would more carefully guard their "brand image". It seems not, because plenty of local distributors and resellers are only too keen to sell you as may iPads (or other Apple devices - I'll use iPad in the rest of this post, as they're the most commonly touted "solution") as you can afford, and to suggest they're "great in education".  Apple themselves know they're marketing to South Africa (look at the URL). Riiiight at the bottom after all the shiny baubles - many of them unavailable because of the lack of DEP/MDM:
Partial screenshot from
Note the highlighted bit.
Why doesn't that link to a page that explains that many of the features they've just show you won't work, and which ones they are?
Or better yet, not even show you the unavailable features? Apple, you *know* what features are and are not in a given country. It's a trivial exercise on a database-backed website to hide and show features based on target market.
That fleet of iPads you think you want? Do your homework. Go find some other schools that have "embraced" iPads (or other Apple products). Speak to the harried IT or teaching staff that try to manage these things. Enquire just how broken (and expensive) any 3rd party MDM solutions they've been forced to adopt might be... If they've done it "successfully", they probably have very different tolerances to chaos (aka fully user-administered devices) to mine, and to what I think most non-"hardcore Apple evangelists" want - and deserve; make sure what they're doing and what you want are even vaguely comparable. My observation is that (some) kids (around here at least) are not mature enough to self-manage devices ("I can't install the core educational app" Delete some games. *tears* "But it's my iPad, I can do what I want") or their time/distractions (Angry Birds Clash of Clans or messaging your friends might be more exciting than your Maths textbook or Shakespeare, but it's not teaching you enough mechanics or literature to be useful).

They are NOT easy to administer**. Not at all. Sure, they're great in SOHO environments if you happen to like that sort of thing. Schools are the very opposite of SOHO. They are large enterprise customers in their management needs - in some ways, they need more control over devices than large corporate customers (depending on your jurisdiction, for one or both of legal or educational reasons). Until such time as the MDM / enrollment stuff exists in your country, they are a real pain. And they're really, really bad at resisting even quite trivial attempts to bypass "corporate" controls (as many schools have been shocked to learn).

There may exist (a possibly false dichotomy) differences between the needs of BYOD and 1:1 programmes. But having been involved in a BYOD programme, and some much more limited 1:1 deployments of iPads, and comparing my experiences with more mature "corporate" platforms (Microsoft may have its issues***, but they understand large roll-outs and management of devices) I can categorically state that the single thing you're going to want (after decent bandwidth and stable Wi-Fi), as an IT person involved in BYOD or particularly 1:1, is scalable manageability of devices.

Anything that requires you - at least anything that requires you more than once - to physically touch each and every device to tweak settings, or update things, or get them on the network, or install software, is NOT ready for "enterprise" use. The last thing that is "reasonable" is to take n iPads and update them, one by one, with a USB cable. Every. Single. Time. You. Change. Something. On Possibly Hundreds of Devices. I don't enjoy administering the 20-odd school owned iPads; fortunately, I have co-workers that don't mind the slog. But man, it makes me cross when I know something better exists if Apple just flips a switch.

In other words, any product which does not have scalable enterprise management features is, by (my) definition, not an enterprise product. Any product from a company that touts "anyone can use it" products that doesn't make available enterprise feature-set tools "even a non-IT person" can manage is doing their users/customers a gross injustice.

At minimum, such management tools must include:

  • network-based configuration of devices and network connections; 
  • network-based management/deployment of software, software licensing controls, user accounts and OS updates; 
  • granular controls over device/app permissions, preferably by user group; 
  • integration with existing user databases/Directory Services (newsflash: we're not into creating hundreds of AppleIDs); "whitelisting" of approved applications. 
  • Devices and systems that work at Layer 3 without hacks. I'm looking at you, AirPlay. 

"Cherry on top" within educational contexts includes:

  • Viewing student screens (big brother IS watching you)****; 
  • Locking screens down when devices are not needed; 
  • Sending entire classrooms to particular apps, sites or services;
  • Flexible assignments of users/devices to "classes" (so when you do history 4H, the history 4H teacher can do the above - outside of history, they can't). 
  • Firewalling of internet sites and services (although this can be managed elsewhere) 

(Yes, some of these are "classroom management" or "discipline" issues - but if you're selling EdTech as some sort of panacea, you better offer these things, and teachers will greatly thank you for including them).

If you want to win all the love and respect from me, device and platform-agnostic abilities to do all of these things are phenomenal and would go a long way to helping teachers (and school IT) to really realise the "promises" of EdTech. To my knowledge, nobody yet does, and those that come close cost large amounts of money - and are often still contingent on Apple's underlying MDM for those devices. Which, as we've noted, may not be available.

Contrast that to Google, who typically launch products globally. Chromebooks and Android. Much better. Within a Google Apps for Education environment you get a lot of nice tools - not *everything* a teacher (or their partners in IT) might like to control devices, but an awful lot. Google's MDM rolls out relatively painlessly. It mostly just works. Even the Chrome browser has some cross-platform management features if your Google Apps users log into Chrome. Apple has even more money that Google, so get to it.

Maybe it's a company culture thing. Individual hipsters "thinking different" vs. a company that is used to wrangling teeming hordes of machines in datacentres as essentially its core business support activity.

And I can use it (GAfE), right now, even here in little old South Africa. I can buy a Chromebook and enroll it in Google's MDM (which isn't necessarily free for "managed chromebooks" - it is a reseller value-add). In fact, the only thing that stops us reaching high school Chromebook BYOD nirvana is the electronic textbook supplier the school chose not supporting them, which is a travesty [edit: 19 Feb 2018: with Chromebooks that support Android, this is no longer a problem. And boy, are they great]. Because outside of kindergarten, and possibly more junior phases in junior school, where big shiny touchscreen things are often a better fit (in the right protective case...), Chromebooks are educational tools par excellence (depending on what your pedagogical goals might be - another platform might be a better fit for your educational aims, age group, classroom or school).

All of this underscores some very common, but often seemingly forgotten questions. Why "EdTech" in your School? What is it going to enhance, and how are you going to measure that? What are teachers actually going to use the things for, and is it any better than what they "used to do"? The last thing you choose is the device platform or platforms you need to achieve those goals and targets.

Really, Apple? You want our school and its teachers (and/or IT staff) to waste time "making a plan" to get around limitations you've artificially created simply by not offering a currently available software product over the internet, whilst effectively "selling" them a completely different product that isn't *actually* available? What the hell is that in 2016? And yours is the most expensive product. For shame.

My final thoughts on the matter: If you're involved in the planning phase (or you have an existing one, but it's not working right) of a BYOD or 1:1 programme:

  1. Make sure you do a lot of "stakeholder involvement" - get everyone in the school on board with the idea. Don't forget the parents, particularly if they have to foot the bill for BYOD. 
  2. EdTech cannot and probably never will replace excellent teachers. (Until AI meets or exceeds human capabilities). Excellent teaching (whatever form that takes) is the cornerstone of great education. The best teachers can give an inspiring and educational lesson with nothing other than themselves. 
  3. Teachers are your most important stakeholders. If they don't want devices, you'll reach an impasse. You may need some "champions" and "mentors" to inspire and help teachers adapt and grow into using devices themselves, and in the classroom. Don't assume learning "by osmosis" or that teachers can independently "find the time"; make training/coaching available; find space in timetables (as part of your general continuing professional development processes) to reflect and improve on the use of devices. 
  4. The educational purpose(s) of devices is the first thing you need to decide. It's possible your school won't forsee an educational purpose, in which case should seriously consider NOT using them. (In part because if your teachers don't see, or cannot be inspired to see, a benefit before the devices exist, they're not going to put in the effort required to "make it work" once they arrive). Score and rank your purposes. Regularly review them going forward - tech evolves at a rapid pace. 
  5. Make sure you monitor everything you can - amount of time devices are used, changes in grades/effort, staff/student "morale", etc. Some of it is "hard" data, some of it is rather more soft. Both types help you make decisions about whether or not it's "working". 
  6. Realise IT is a continual education scenario - your teachers in particular will have to learn new skills and try out new things all the time. It's a very valuable life skill to instill into the pupils as well.
  7. Don't over-estimate how well pupils will cope with devices - they all know how to open the latest game they want to play, but for a surprising number, that is *all* they can do on a device. 
  8. If you live in a country where national and international bandwidth are billed separately, make certain any part of your "cloud" can mostly be reached nationally. Plus latency is bad for everyone. If your data - or a local mirror/cache/CDN for it is not available in your country, think long and hard about that platform. There was a time when a vendor neutral datacentre was a pipedream and when fat internet pipes were unimaginable. Even dark fibre was an alien concept. This is no longer the case
  9. You need to put formal Policies in place about the BYOD/1:1 project - which may also include changing things like school rules and employment contracts or conditions to adequately account for the changes (and challenges) that BYOD/1:1 brings with it. Some people think it's "as easy" as dropping a bunch of devices in a classroom. That's the easy part. Without the rest of it, it will not be a success. 
  10. Homogeneous deployments (whether BYOD or 1:1) are MUCH easier to manage from an IT standpoint and within the classroom. Unconstrained BYOD is chaotic and tough. However, there may be positive things to be said about diversity. Make sure you publish and enforce any required standards. Very carefully consider what will work best for you (this will hinge heavily on what you want to do in the classroom) while you formulate your standard(s).   
  11. Finally, survey the market, matching up the things your teachers want to do in the classroom with which are available on each potentially viable platform/device/"ecosystem". Do the requisite horse-trading to match the most critical needs first, and then the "nice to haves". Make sure your chosen platform(s) will actually do what you need it (them) to, and will not overburden your school with what should be relatively trivial matters in 2016 - like managing devices. Do a small pilot study, just in case. No MDM, no deal. 

(In other words, Apple, do what you need to do to expand your DEP/MDM/cloud stuff - particularly - internationally RealSoonNow [Edit: 19 Feb 2018 - it is available now, but I don't know about the full enterprise enrolment features, and AFAIK, VPP is still not available. For shame!]. And ban your distributors/re-sellers in countries that don't have it from having pages like this (link changed to protect some people who were grumpy about this, but many will have pages like this), unless there are prominent banners all over it saying "not available" or "coming soon" or "We will make your life miserable, even if (when they work) the students love them". And follow suit yourself. Whilst I'm thinking about it - your "educational discounts"? Pathetic!).

* MDM is "mobile device management". There are arguments to be had where DEP and MDM overlap (or don't) - they're part of the same continuum of "making devices usable in corporate environments" - in which I include schools. VPP is also required, particularly in 1:1 scenarios, and for "corporately" owned devices. 
*** What I mean is "as an enterprise customer". What works for a single user or family does not translate to an enterprise. 
*** Not least of which is what would be an excellent (but more expensive) alternative to Chromebooks - Surface tablets - not being officially available here. 
**** I (fairly strongly) believe students should have some rights to privacy, but they need to be earned, and limited to contexts where they don't unduly disadvantage that individual's learning. Formal school policy is vital here. 

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